Ongoing Google Investigation Calls Privacy Policies into Question

by Matt Klassen on June 23, 2010

With the news that more and more countries are conducting in-depth investigations regarding Google’s well-publicized Street View privacy blunder, several obvious questions have been raised, do our privacy laws do enough to protect the public? And, what is one’s role as an individual in protecting one’s own privacy?

While I’ll be the first to admit that most of the world’s privacy laws lag considerably behind the times, as technology advances a great deal faster than the bureaucratic wheels of government, I still tend to think that the onus for protecting one’s privacy lies with the individual. This view stems from my possibly misplaced hope in humanity’s ability to investigate, to weigh the positives and negatives of any given situation, and to make decisions appropriately, so perhaps I’m living in a dream world.

With that said, it was somewhat disturbing to read a report that surfaced yesterday out of a privacy protection summit organized by Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, wherein a spokesperson from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) spoke out against the confusing jargon that bogs down almost all corporate privacy statements; language, the FTC apparently thinks, you’re not smart enough to understand.

While the announcement was certainly not intended to levy any sort of insult against the American public in general, the words of the FTC spokesperson were, to me, a scathing critique. They were not a scathing critique of the privacy standards of American businesses—although those standards could do with an in-depth review—nor were they a critique of the intelligence of the American public—although the FTC thinks the general public is intellectually overburdened when it comes to interpreting privacy policy—but instead this story is evidence to me of one thing, Americans may simply be too lazy to care about privacy at all.

You see, while I will admit that learning about one’s privacy rights is time consuming and boring, especially when it stands in the way of downloading some cool new software or playing with Google’s latest privacy-killing online application, if you take a moment and read the mandatory privacy documents that all companies provide, you’ll find that it doesn’t take a lawyer to parse through it, just the ability to read.

The truth is, I have read through more than my fair share of privacy policy statements and the fact is, they’re not all that complicated to understand. That’s why when Kathryn Ratte, a senior attorney in the FTC’s consumer protection bureau states that, “We’ve put too much burden on the consumers to understand these policies,” I just have to laugh.

Americans, or almost anyone else for that matter, are not unable to interpret and understand the privacy policies that companies put forward, they’re just unwilling, which would be a fine state of affairs had companies like Google not muddied the waters with their well-publicized privacy mishaps.

As with almost anything, here in North America we generally only care about things when it affects us personally or when things are placed so obviously in front of us that we almost have to care. The point, had these high profile privacy blunders not happened, I would wager that the FTC would not be pushing so hard to change privacy legislation in America, allowing the public to continue on in its state of blissful ignorance.

In my opinion, however, it’s time that we took control of our own privacy controls, read what Facebook really does with our personal information, and made informed decisions accordingly. It’s time that the FTC worked to make companies accountable, but stopped pandering to our general laziness and ignorance. And for those that are simply too lazy to read and understand these policies before signing away their private information to interested third parties, well, perhaps you’re getting what you deserve.

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